Aspen-area big game tough it out
ASPEN ” Deer and elk are dealing with the deep snowpack in the Roaring Fork Valley well enough that state wildlife officials have no plans to intervene and feed them.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife began emergency feeding operations for big game in the Gunnison Basin earlier this month. Winter conditions are more severe there than in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to wildlife division spokesman Randy Hampton.
“We are monitoring conditions [in the Roaring Fork Valley], especially in the Aspen area,” Hampton said. “If it gets to the point where we need to step in, we’re prepared to do so.”
Kevin Wright, a longtime state wildlife officer in the Carbondale and Aspen areas, flew in a small plane last week to check the condition of deer in the valley. “Right now, we’re doing OK,” he said.
The animals have moved off general winter range onto severe winter range, Wright said. Hillsides with southerly aspects attract deer and elk during severe winters because the sun exposes vegetation.
The snowpack in the Roaring Fork River Basin is about 30 percent above average for this point in January, according to the federal agency that monitors snowpack. Readings varied earlier this week from as high as 56 percent above average in parts of the Fryingpan Valley to 30 percent above average east of Aspen, the Natural Resources Conservation Service reported.
December was particularly challenging for wildlife with record and near-record snowfall amounts throughout the valley.
Conditions haven’t been this severe in the Aspen area since the mid-1990s. Hampton said deer and elk born since then have experienced only mild winters. Surviving in deep snow is something new for them.
But Wright said he was encouraged by the game trails he spotted while on the aerial survey. The trails are in a web pattern. When deer have trouble with deep snow, they tend to stick to the same trails rather than plow new routes. Wildlife officials call it troughing when they follow the same paths.
Wildlife officials also look for signs that deer are congregating in large herds, another sign they are struggling. Wright said the largest grouping of deer he saw was five.
“If they were really in trouble, they’d be a lot more concentrated,” he said.
Hampton said wildlife officers also are monitoring deer by visually checking for protruding back and hip bones. When they find road kill, officers check the bone marrow for fat. Lack of fat indicates the animals are tapping the last of their reserves, he said.
Conditions are different in the Gunnison Basin than they are in the Roaring Fork Valley. Hampton said deer are struggling with four feet of snow on the ground along with temperatures that have consistently dipped well below zero. The surface snow is crusted over, making it difficult for deer to paw through to sage brush, their staple food. In addition, the sage brush grows lower the farther south in Colorado, so it is covered more easily in places like Gunnison in big snows, Hampton said.
Big game also is more confined in the Gunnison Basin than it is in places like the Roaring Fork Valley. The wildlife division started the feeding program because thousands of deer were in danger of dying.
“There’s tremendous public pressure for someone to step in,” he said. DOW stepped up because of its wildlife stewardship responsibilities and to protect the hunting value of the big game. If the deer herds were decimated, the economy of Gunnison and the surrounding area would take “a big hit,’ Hampton said.
At the same time the wildlife division is feeding big game in Gunnison, officials are pleading with the public throughout the rest of the state not to take it upon themselves to feed big game. The wildlife division is providing specially formulated feed to deer along with feed and hay to elk, sheep, pronghorn and elk. Hampton said that feeding deer anything but the specially formulated feed can hurt more than it helps. Deer will eat hay and alfalfa, for example, but it has no nutritional value for them.
“It’s like cupcakes,” Hampton said.
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